September 27, 2011

A Divine Diversion

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This exhibition comes with a warning label: If you find images of grotesque monsters garlanded with severed heads and flayed human skin disturbing, proceed with caution. The warning, positioned at the gallery entrance, tempts rather than deters the viewer from venturing inside. A quick survey of the large, white room is enough to overwhelm the viewer. But this is not your typical horror show (although the museum’s publicity materials aren’t exaggerating the gore on rampant display). From a distance, it’s not the gruesome details of the paintings but the sonorous blacks and deep reds that stun onlookers into silence. Some canvasses are framed with finely crafted textiles bearing bouquets of gold-tinged flowers. The rich colours indicate something infinitely majestic, fearsome and mysterious, like a tiger prowling about a dark forest.

Demonic Divine, the Johnson Museum’s current exhibition on Tibetan religious art, is overtly designed to provoke. The exhibition runs till October 9th and features dazzling 12th to 19th century paintings and sculptures drawn from the Rubin Museum’s extensive collection. Mostly, the selection seems like a parade of the grotesque. Smashana Adipati (Chitipati), a 15th century depiction of the Lords of the Cemetery Ground, illustrates the paradox of the walking dead. Two smiling skeletons, surrounded by crackling flames, dance joyfully beneath a roof made of ribs and skulls. The canvas is flesh-coloured and the corners of the paintings reveal decomposing bodies being attacked by vultures and tigers. These nightmarish visions could have come straight out of Wilfred Owen’s war poems.

The emphasis on the gore may seem overdone but that is probably the point; the bloodbath is supposed to be inescapable. Consequently, it’s impossible for viewers to leave the gallery without wondering why the images are so graphic when Buddhism is widely associated with peace and nonviolence.

This paradox is not as puzzling as it appears. The answer lies in the symbolism of the spectacles. Scale is everything. A battle scene (such as the 19th century work Red Tsien Deity) usually revolves around a central deity who is nearly twenty times as large as his mortal opponents. To get a better idea of a deity’s power, count his body parts. Each part illustrates a different Buddhist tenet: Three heads represent the three dimensions of Buddhahood. Three eyes indicate perfect knowledge of the past, present and future. Four legs symbolise the everlasting qualities of compassion, impartiality, love and joy. Six arms represent the transcendent perfections of concentration, diligence, discipline, generosity, patience and wisdom.

Essentially, the paintings are warriors in the battle for spiritual progress. This is elucidated by the juxtaposition of two paintings depicting Vajrapani, the Tibetan Buddhist deity of the mind. A 19th century painting depicts Vajrapani in the peaceful pose of a classical Indian god. He is youthful and restful sitting amidst lush greenery. This symbol of tranquillity and enlightenment contrasts sharply with a wrathful 15th century depiction of Vajrapani. Another striking dialogue is sparked by the exhibition of a painting of the major deity and founder of the Bon religion.  Bon, an indigenous Himalayan religion, is actively practised alongside Buddhism.

Of course, a taste of the region and its religious practices makes it a lot easier to understand these artworks. The Johnson Museum did an impressive job of weaving these religious artworks into a tapestry of Tibetan culture. The “Celebrate Tibet” showcase, held on September 24th, featured Tibetan cuisine prepared by Tibetan Cooking of Ithaca and colourful cultural dances by members of the Tibetan Association. The flight of the dancer’s long, flowing sleeves, coupled with the sway of the prayer flags suspended in the lobby, constituted a far more pleasant kind of spectacle. A particularly interesting dance featured a warrior-like mask (bright red and crowned with papier-mache skulls) resembling the Mongolian ritual dance mask in the exhibition.

However, there was also a quieter side to these festivities. During the guided meditation session led by monks from the Namgyal Monastery, visitors were encouraged to locate their “selves.” That is, “I” is often conceived of as a solid entity. However, it is difficult to determine which aspect of the self is the defining characteristic of “I”. It is important to recognise this uncertainty in order to understand some of the central tenets of Tibetan Buddhism.

If all this intrigues you, it’s worth having a look at the newly renovated Asian art gallery on the fifth floor. You’ll get to sample more Tibetan art from the Johnson Museum’s collection while strolling through sunlit corridors offering pristine views of the Cornell campus. It’s even more fascinating to see how artists from other cultures explore their religious traditions. The parallels are as striking as the differences. For instance, the sacredness and centrality of religious texts are explored by Pouran Jinchi’s inscriptions of Qu’ran passages with the consonants omitted.

This exhibition is not for the faint-hearted.  It’s not just your ability to stomach graphic spectacles that will be challenged. You’ll also have to contend with ideas that take you beyond the physical realm. Go if you dare; it’s definitely divine.

Original Author: Daveen Koh